Taylor Baucom | Contributing PhotographerFootball
Smith, Gulley combine to form explosive two-headed monster at running back
Jerome Smith stayed true to his personality as he reflected on the growth of Syracuse’s running game from a major question mark to a two-headed force.
Smith spoke softly and calmly, describing his emergence at tailback in a matter-of-fact tone. It’s the same stoic attitude he carries on the field – a stark contrast to backfield mate Prince-Tyson Gulley, an energetic player who Smith said runs purely on his emotions.
“I’m pretty quiet. I’m cool. I’m in the back most of the time,” Smith said. “It’s him who’s getting everything geared up.
“He’s talking to me, ‘You ready to go,’ I give him a look and he knows I’m good.”
The running backs with opposite personalities have provided Syracuse with a steady ground game that has helped push the Orange (6-5, 4-2 Big East) to bowl eligibility for the second time in three seasons. Smith and Gulley have combined for 1,404 yards and eight touchdowns, forcing opponents to respect the run and opening up the passing game for quarterback Ryan Nassib.
The pair will aim to continue their run of success when SU takes on Temple (4-6, 2-4) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa., on Friday at 11 a.m. in the team’s regular-season finale. Both were bothered by injury in the Orange’s win over Missouri last Saturday, and head coach Doug Marrone said earlier in the week 11 of his starters were on the injured list.
But Marrone said at his press conference Wednesday that the entire team has practiced, and he expects all of his players to play against the Owls.
“We’re ready to go. We’ll be ready on Friday,” Marrone said. “We’ve got more time to work on the plan and get better and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
That means the plan will once again include Smith and Gulley taking the bulk of the carries on Friday.
Smith, a junior from Delaware, entered the season with just 37 carries in his career. Gulley, also in his third year, only had 31 carries to his name after a broken collarbone ended his 2011 campaign after four games.
That inexperience showed as they battled with three other backs during preseason camp and failed to impress Marrone and the coaching staff. And it showed even more as they struggled to get going and Syracuse stumbled to a 2-4 start.
But they found their confidence in a 40-10 victory over UConn in the team’s seventh game, combining for 171 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
It was the first of four straight 100-yard performances by Smith while Gulley served as a spark off the bench. They’ve been at the heart of SU’s four wins in its last five games, including the bowl-clinching 31-27 victory over the Tigers in which both reached the end zone.
“They’ve been running tough,” SU wide receiver Alec Lemon said. “The offensive line’s been blocking great. They’ve been opening up a lot of holes and they’ve been hitting those holes and exploding through.”
The formula has been simple for the Orange.
Smith, the starter, establishes SU’s running game with his north-south running style, and the shifty Gulley offers a change-of-pace when he takes the field.
The strategy was perhaps best on display in Syracuse’s biggest win of the season over then-No. 11 Louisville in the Carrier Dome two weeks ago.
Smith opened the game with three straight handoffs for 16 yards. Nassib hit wide receiver Jeremiah Kobena for 45-yard on a play-action pass. Smith added two more carries for 14 yards and the Orange finished the drive with a field goal.
Gulley supplied the dagger before halftime with a 55-yard touchdown run, capping it with a celebration defined by his emotions – punching the turf from his knees – that Smith saw a year earlier when his teammate fearlessly challenged a Wake Forest defensive end at the line of scrimmage.
“I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, this dude’s just a physical, emotional little guy,’” Smith said. “He brings a lot to the table.”
Smith said he wishes he played with the same emotion as Gulley at times. But his low-key approach has also been beneficial as he has racked up 923 yards on the year.
“My focus I’m just mellowed out,” Smith said. “I’m pretty much the talker when things aren’t going our way to calm everything down, ‘We’re good.’
“And I think that’s where it helps it out most when things aren’t going well, I can calm everybody down.”
With Smith remaining cool under pressure and Gulley providing the jolt when needed, the Syracuse backfield has become a reliable part of an explosive offense.
They’ve both made their mark with their distinctive personalities.
Said Smith: “We’ve both been getting a better feel for it and trusting what we’re doing and learning what type of player we are.”
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